Jimmy Carter was surely one of the unluckiest presidents in US history. He took office in 1977 with an economy racked by stagflation and dependent on imported oil; a foreign policy humbled by the debacle of the Vietnam War; a Democratic Party split between Northern liberals and Southern conservatives; and a country in the grip of rampant cynicism on the question of whether the federal government was able to solve any serious problem at all. Outside the White House, Carter also faced a growing political right united around Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, and eager to pounce on any missteps or signs of weakness.
Even a shrewd politician would have found it difficult to successfully navigate these obstacles to accomplish big things and get himself reelected. Carter had captured the 1976 nomination and defeated President Gerald Ford by appealing deftly to the country’s post-Watergate disgust with Washington “insiders” (although he blew a huge lead in the polls and received barely half the popular vote). That year, neither major-party nominee raised much private money; each ran his campaign almost entirely on the funds provided by the millions of Americans who checked a donation box on their tax returns. What a world we have lost.
Once Carter moved into the White House, the erstwhile nuclear engineer and peanut producer proved to be an absolutely wretched politician. His campaign had promised “A government as good as its people,” as enticingly hollow a specimen of soft populism as has ever been concocted. Yet he had no idea how to translate even that anodyne pledge into anything resembling an attractive set of policies or a governing coalition that would support and defend them.
Instead of a coherent strategy, Carter pursued a disparate set of projects, often with little popular backing, that he was sincerely convinced were necessary for the well-being of the nation and the world. Some of these were laudable, then and today. He granted amnesty to draft resisters and sought to conserve energy and protect wilderness areas. He promoted human rights and, despite resistance from conservative senators like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, championed the treaties that would eventually turn over exclusive control of the Panama Canal to Panama. But other of his initiatives were either based on dubious logic—pursuing a balanced budget; deregulating the airline and trucking industries—or, in the case of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, did nothing to resolve the underlying issue at stake: the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One also led to a globe-shaking fiasco: Carter’s decision to stand by the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, after the Iranian Revolution erupted continues to roil our domestic politics and our relations with the Muslim world. And when young Iranian insurgents seized the diplomats and citizens at the US embassy in Tehran and held many of them hostage for 444 days, they handed Republicans a strong weapon with which to bash the incumbent president as soft and helpless.
Carter made things worse by showing contempt for partisan differences. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once scorned him as “the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland.” The liberal historian was only half right: Carter did oppose the sweeping national health-insurance plan advanced by Senator Ted Kennedy, explaining that “I need to enhance an image of fiscal responsibility,” and he peered at older social programs through an austerity-tinted lens. But he broke away decisively from his upbringing in the Jim Crow South by enforcing the Voting Rights Act and naming African Americans to high positions in his administration, among them the secretary of health, education, and welfare and the ambassador to the United Nations. No president before him had appointed more women to significant federal jobs, from cabinet secretaries to judges. Only one woman sat on a federal court when Carter entered the White House. By the time he left, he had appointed 40 more—including a pioneering advocate for women’s rights named Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would later become the second female justice to serve on the Supreme Court.
Stuart Eizenstat, who advised Carter on domestic affairs and remains his friend to this day, has made a mighty effort to document all these decisions and a great deal more. He hopes a narrative as thick and detailed as this one will persuade readers that Carter’s single term as president was among “the most consequential in modern history.” “Far from a failed presidency,” Eizenstat writes, Carter “left behind concrete reforms and long-lasting benefits to the people of the United States as well as the international order.” To support this redemptive mission, Eizenstat’s publisher has coaxed blurbs from a roster of mostly retired heavies from both major parties: Alan Greenspan, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, James Baker, and Henry Kissinger, among others. Madeleine Albright chimes in with a foreword praising Carter as “a great man…our country was lucky to have him as our leader.”
Unlike the former secretary of state, however, Eizenstat isn’t reluctant to criticize his hero from time to time. “To be truly effective,” he writes on page 2, “a president cannot make a sharp break between the politics of his campaign and the politics of governing if he wants to nurture an effective national coalition. This,” he continues, “Carter not only failed to achieve—he did not want to.” Yet Eizenstat goes on to devote most of his very long book to describing how, despite this flaw, the brilliant man from Plains, Georgia, managed to make lasting changes that benefited the nation and the world.
Carter’s flops still overwhelm the narrative, as they did for most of the Americans who lived through his term. Eizenstat attempts to bury the failures in apologetic context, arguing that Carter had inherited too many weighty problems for him to solve. But whatever the obstacles to a more successful outcome, a botched policy remains a botched policy. Eizenstat describes, for example, the three-year struggle to pass comprehensive energy legislation at a time when oil prices often spiked and Americans seemed at the mercy of OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries). It was a task the president, quoting William James, had called the “moral equivalent of war.” Less inspiringly, Carter scolded Americans for being addicted to “self-indulgence and consumption.”
By the time his Energy Security Act passed in 1980, the president had squandered a good deal of political capital. With his approval rating hovering around 30 percent, Carter nevertheless managed to pass a bill that, as Eizenstat asserts, created “explicit incentives to produce clean alternative energy sources.” However, few Americans were in the mood to celebrate—and at the behest of oil and coal producers, future administrations have been able to render those incentives as expendable as the president who, for his televised address, famously urged Americans to turn their thermostats down.
In recounting Carter’s disastrous Iran policy, Eizenstat adopts a similar tone of Sisyphean exasperation. After the CIA helped restore the shah to power in a military coup in 1953, Iran had been America’s closest partner in the Middle East. So how could Carter abandon someone who was “an increasingly unpopular autocratic leader but a strategically vital ally”? And who could have predicted that the shah would be toppled by a revolution led by theocrats? “One could fill an ocean with what the United States did not know about developments in Iran,” Eizenstat laments.
Like his big-shot blurbers, Eizenstat assumes that America’s role in the world was essentially benign and remains so to this day. Yet millions of Iranians never forgot the role that the United States played in overthrowing the elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh, installing a police-state monarchy in its place. To Eizenstat, this is a mere historical detail that might have been successfully overcome if our spooks had not been so credulous. In the end, the author asserts, Carter did not “lose Iran”; the shah “lost his own country.” But what about those officials in Washington who put him back on the throne in the first place, and then worked for decades to keep him there?
Eizenstat hasn’t written a book that the sizable cohort of readers who rush to buy presidential biographies by the likes of Ron Chernow and Robert Dallek will probably find enjoyable. But political scholars will be grateful for his careful descriptions of how the administration’s policies were made or unmade, advanced or defeated, as viewed from his perch in the White House. Insider accounts have their drawbacks, but reliable histories of the powerful cannot be written without them.
However, future authors will have to look elsewhere for explanations of Carter’s most significant flaw: his failure to understand that he needed both a loyal political party and an energized partisan base to convert his good intentions into lasting results. When Carter took office, the Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress were nearly as large as they had been during the heyday of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society in the mid-1960s. To be fair, Carter’s party was severely divided; white conservatives from the South clashed with pro-labor liberals from the Northeast and Far West. Two years before the 1980 election, Ted Kennedy was already attacking him for attempting to trim the federal budget “at the expense of the elderly, the poor, the black, the sick, the cities, and the unemployed.” Yet Carter somehow expected the quarreling Democrats to rally behind whatever he decided to do. Before Johnson’s presidency was doomed by the Vietnam War and white backlash to his civil-rights policy, the former Senate majority leader had been a shrewd and effective party builder; Carter later confessed that he “was never comfortable” playing the same role.
Granted, few Democratic presidents have kept their base excited for long. Since its creation in the 1820s, the Democratic Party has nearly always represented a more heterogeneous constituency, demographically and ideologically, than its rivals. Only when the party’s leaders have kept their various groups reasonably happy and in harness during and between national campaigns have Democrats dominated national politics. Andrew Jackson accomplished that feat back in the 1830s. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt did it during their first terms and midway through their second ones. Lyndon Johnson repeated their success, but only until the Republicans made big gains in the midterm contest of 1966. Even Barack Obama wasn’t able to persuade enough of the white liberals and people of color who’d flocked to the polls to elect him to turn out for the Democrats running for Congress and the state legislatures just two years later.
By his own admission, Carter never shared this partisan goal. He did nothing to galvanize the Democratic rank and file, even during his reelection campaign, and his ham-handed approach to organized labor was a particularly glaring flaw. Forty years ago, unions represented nearly a quarter of workers in the private sector (as opposed to less than 7 percent today), but the growth of manufacturing abroad and an offensive by anti-labor firms at home had caused their clout to wane. When the new president took office, union leaders made it clear to him that their main goal was for Congress to enact changes in the law that would make it easier for a majority of workers in a given workplace to unionize. Eizenstat himself told his boss, “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this matter in terms of our future relationship with organized labor…. I think it can help cement our relations for a good while.” But Carter, who hailed from a right-to-work state, gave the idea a decidedly lukewarm reception: “Labor Law Reform? For what is that a euphemism?” he asked another aide.
The House did finally pass a compromise reform bill, but at the president’s urging, the Senate put off its vote so the administration could focus on getting the Panama Canal treaties ratified. This gave corporate lobbyists time to mount a powerful campaign against the labor bill—and a filibuster killed it. During the 1980 primary campaign, leaders of the United Auto Workers and several other big unions expressed their disgust by endorsing Ted Kennedy instead of the president who’d let them down. Like every other serious challenge to a sitting president within his own party, it struck a mortal blow to the incumbent’s chances of winning in November.
In one sense, Carter’s political misfortunes may have been less his fault and more the playing out of a cyclical pattern in presidential history. As the Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek has argued, Carter could not reconstruct a political order whose crumbling had been a prerequisite for his victory. The cynicism about the malfunctions and malfeasance of “big government” that, in part, had boosted Carter into power also hindered his ability to chart a new course that would not alienate key figures in his own party.
Carter, writes Skowronek, “found himself in a political no man’s land.” The New Deal system was falling apart, but no one knew how to patch it back together or build a new one. As president, John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover had been the victims of similar circumstances, although the orders they failed to preserve were quite different from Carter’s. For such men, adds Skowronek, “the attractions of the loner-as-leader shine brightly. But such presidents have never been able to reorder national affairs. Once in office, they appear incompetent and in over their heads. Their disruptions characteristically drive the implosion. Reconstruction follows, but under other auspices.”
Jimmy Carter has lived a longer and better life than most ex-presidents. He has done useful and honest work around the world and taken progressive stands on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to torture to gun control. But his political ineptitude while in office helped enable an icon of conservatism to take power and speed up a transformation of government from which we are still struggling to escape. One can only hope, and work, for the day when the despicable entertainer who now resides in the White House will suffer the same electoral drubbing that his flawed but decent predecessor did in 1980. The next reconstruction cannot come soon enough.